It's all about salt, lamas and lagunas

Trip Start Mar 25, 2010
Trip End Jul 02, 2010

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Flag of Bolivia  ,
Tuesday, April 13, 2010

The bus ride from Villazon to Uyuni was an amazing display of Bolivia's ever changing landscape. One moment you would be in the Australian desert, the next in New Mexico and after you would be high up in Alps… all blended smoothly and quickly into one; was a true wonder to admire. As we curled around mountains and stopped in useless tows for human needs, we finally made it to the final desertic straight stretch to Uyuni. The sun was coming down, the lamas were running alongside the road and our patience was trimming, after 10hrs of bus ride, we finally arrived in the very uneventfull town of Uyuni.

All of us were tired from the continuous travel from Salta, but we had reached our goal to get up to Uyuni as fast as possible. Once settled in the very unglamorous but sufficient Palace hotel, we set out to get some food and internet consumption, and booked the three day tour fo the Salt Flats.

In the office the next day, we met 4 others that would be sardined with us in the Land Cruiser: Daniel, Dominique, Peter and Monika.

Daniel was a 21 year old from Denmark who had recently done his military service and then had worked as a florist for a couple months before vsiting SA for two months. He was due back in Copenhagen to study History with already lofty goals of a PHD. 

Peter and Dominique were a Swiss german couple in their early 30s, who had been traveling around the world and were reaching their 12th and last month of travel before rejoining their families and previous work location, Zurich. Finally, Monika a 20 year old Bolivian-German, who had been raised in a small town in the North of Germany, I am guessing somewhere near Hamburg. 

After the usual backpacking greetings, we stormed off with the jeep and our driver Javier. He was accompagnied by our cook, Lise if I am not mistaken, who would sit quietly at his side in front and occasionally served him some cookies or his required dose of coca leaves to handle the long drives on the bumpy non-paved roads.

Our first stop was a train graveyard right outside Uyuni. Like many other sites in Bolivia, it would remind us that this country had encountered wealth thanks to its rich resources, but due to colonial abuse and mismanagment had sombered to a petty state. Then we left for the center of the flats on a cactus island about an hours drive from the flats periphery. This is where all tours would flock to get a great view on the flats and where lunch would be served; under an umbrella if you had chosen a better agency. It was fun to be on the island where all the pictures from the salar are posted online and you can almost recognize the various cactuses that every one chooses to capture in their digital memory.

After the lunch, the real and anticipated fun was to begin; picture taking with the use of the extensive depth of the salt flats. Using Pringles boxes, swiss army knifes, addidas shoes and simple human positioning, we tried to enact our creative photographic skills and tried to come up with some great shots; emphasis on tried. In all honesty, we would have needed a couple more hours to really master the techinique, but we came up with some rather good shots and had some good fun in doing so.

San juan was the stop for the night and is a peacefull village that had only cement blocks as décor, where its small community would take refuge. After being shown to our humble and cold carters, we made pace for the one and only local shop to buy the precious commodities of beer and toilet paper. Once back, the Swiss Germans played their role in contributing to the amusement of the night by sharing their own version of 'asshole’ with an odd set of cards where the jack, queen and ace were very different than the common set of cards. The jack was a girly-man figure, that was one of our conclusions. 

The highlight, however, was the surreal star light view that took over once the sun had vanished. I had never been so close to the skies and was absolutely baffled by the obvious beauty of the scenery and regretted that I had not taken Martina's advice (previous boss) to buy a star map as it would have been extremely useful here. I knew I was then in a special place, it felt like Bolivia.

The next day was a rather rough wake up as we made our way to Volcan Ollague near the Chilean border. Lots of beer when you are trying to acclimatise to the altitude is not a good idea, as we on average at 4'000m (my advice, listen to your guidebook that warns you of this). It was this morning that we all realised that we would be covering large distance in these three days and that the salt flats would just be one of the many sights we were to see. Once again, the landscapes would change and lagunas became the next stops where we would snap pictures, eat and small talk. As I write this, I realize that while we saw many sights and beautifull lagunas (Colorado, Verde and others), I am simply exausted when I think of all the time we spent in that jeep squeezed together with the three taller men in the middle section, and the two girls and Frenchman in the back with their knees in constant contact with our backrests.

The second night was spent next to the Red lagoon, close to the Chilean border. That afternoon, a powerful stich of pain stuck in the middle of my forehead and restleness kicked in as I craved a nap in the 6 people bedroom that we discovered after the long day of driving. This was my first experience, I think, with alititude sickness. I went to bed early that night, so did the others.

The next day, we woke up at 4am… not fun. The reason for the early wake up was to go see the geysers up at 4500m in the dark.. honestly, when you are tired and cold, this experience does not feel like it is worth the pain. That was clearly felt by several of us. Perhaps Peter was genuienely excited by the sight, but the others were fast to rejoin the jeep after trying to admire the almost invisible sprays of vapour. Once back in the car, my mind was on the negative and not pleased with this start, but this state was to go through a complete swing.

Around 6am, we arrived near a set of shacks along another lagoon. The difference with this lagoon was that adjacent to one of the shacks you could find a roundish natural pool that steamed in the cold morning. We were the first car to arrive so we rushed to take off our clothes and parade into the warm water in our boxers. As we ventured in, the sun became to creep up from the east at the same pace of the other tour cars that arrived and unloaded its eager tourists who craved a bath. Within 10 minutes, there were at least 20 of us gazing at the amazing sunrise that we were witnessing.

After lunch and more travel, we took a break in a small town, knowing that we had about 1h30 left before we were back in Uyuni. Then once again to our surprise, we had heard that there were roadblocks on a bridge by some villagers that requested electricity in their towns. So there you go, patience vanishing, we had to double the time of return and started to drive ourselves through windy, bumpy dirt roads in the country side; now we were truly in a safari style drive. 

Then, in the distance, the train graveyard appeared and we were back on familiar turf. Pfew!
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